3 stupid reasons to start a clothing line

I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time but haven’t because somebody will invariably misinterpret what I’m saying and stomp me into a bloody pulp. If you’re new to these parts, know I have a life long commitment to social causes so read carefully.

This post could be partially summarized by this line Burt Reynolds’ character said in the movie Paternity:

I want to have a son so I can be there when he learns about gravity.

I thought that was one of the stupidest lines I’ve ever heard in a movie. And it’s a stupid reason to start a business.

In the broadest of strokes, based on primary motivation (mission) there’s three kinds of designers destined to fail. These are people who are:

  • Style Saints: Feel their core mission is to save consumers who dress badly
  • Fit Saints: Ditto except the primary mission is fit related (plus sizes etc)
  • Social Saints: Feel their primary mission is to create jobs or <insert social cause here>

Of them all, Style Saints are a lost cause mostly because dressing poorly is subjective and a matter of personal preference. You can’t swoop in like Superman to save people with style. They won’t care. To them, you’re a for profit enterprise who wants their money and not everyone will agree your taste is that great anyway. Very few designers think their stuff is ugly yet ugly abounds. Besides, people who dress poorly may not agree they dress poorly or they may not care. Or, they may not have any money so they won’t be buying your clothes anyway. Pick another way to save the world or better yet, dispense with this delusion and make cool stuff that some people will want to buy.

I think the worst style saint I found recently was this guy who said he wanted to create a brand so that sports inspired people could have their own identity. He thought they’d believe they had their own identity by wearing his? Does he really believe this? [Note my cynicism, expect the same from other consumers]. Why does everyone need an identity these days anyway? Call me crazy but identity is developed through character, one’s course is formed by action; it’s not something you wash and wear.

Fit Saints can be closely related to style saints if they make similar subjective judgments. Many people just don’t know that much about fit -or care. Or, they don’t want to pay. But most of all, the consumer is not going to be favorably predisposed to your altruistic fit mission because they won’t know of it. Some might but most won’t. No, all they’re going to know is whether your stuff fits them and whether it’s a good value. Particularly in plus sizes, it is very difficult to fit the gamut of consumers. If anything, consumers who fall outside your fitting profile will criticize you because your clothes don’t fit them. And even if they know you say you’re doing this out of altruism, their attitude is likely to be one of cynicism. That if you really cared, you’d fit them so they’ll just think you’re in it for the money. So, you may as well dispense with formality and do it for that reason.

I think it is great to be inspired by fitting problems to launch a line because it represents an opportunity to profit. By all means, go for it but swooping in with your cape to save consumers from other bad products shouldn’t be your primary reason for starting a business. Rather, you should be glad of the existence of bad products because those represent competitive advantage.

Social Saints and altruism in manufacturing rarely works. If your primary motivation to do this is intended as a benevolent gesture to employ people, employees (and customers) often don’t care either. In the case of employees, you’re “the man”, squeezing them to line your own pockets. In the case of contractors, parroting the employment mantra -while negotiating a lower price- induces cynicism because they see how wasteful one is. There are a few not for profit sewing operations around, I know of two within 250 miles of me. One will be closing soon because the diocese funding it has withdrawn their support because the operation has generated nothing but red ink for 16 years. The other regularly holds what amounts to “fundraisers” in the form of civil protests against sweat shops to solicit public support when they don’t even make a pretense of sewing anymore. In the case of the latter; I tried to give them business but they didn’t want to sew anything more complex than tote bags with strap webbing handles. Both cases are really tragic because neither needed to close and we really needed the contract services. If they had been profit minded, they would have looked more closely at their decision making based on quality of services rather than just pronouncing it quality because they kept people on the payroll. I have never seen so many under utilized workers sitting around in my life. It’s depressing.

This does not mean one cannot combine secondary motivations such as employing people and providing niche products to a specialized market but profiteers run their businesses better. Lots better. I trust a profiteer a lot more than anyone else because their motivation is clear; anyone else is just murky. If one’s judgment is suspect by keeping someone who is highly incompetent and drags it all down because they don’t want to deprive the person of a job, it amounts to very bad morale. Other employees will resent the freeloaders who haven’t bought into the mission. One bad apple does spoil the barrel.

And this is also not to say that consumers don’t make choices based on a company’s mission. Believe me, I prefer to buy artisan goods every single time and am pleased to pay the premium for it. But the goods must represent a semblance of value or nobody is going to buy it. Or not enough will buy it. The point is, if profit is your central focus, this necessarily means that your primary goal is to provide value to the customer. Do that well and you’ll have enough gravy to fund your social causes and make customers glad they’re doing business with you. If you have social goals, the best thing to do is to make money that you can then give away, spend on social priorities or to make your employees work place and lives a little better.

You should be as profit minded as your employees; they’re not coming to work because the clothes are cool. They’re coming for the cash.

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24 comments

  1. Andrea says:

    Kathleen,

    Very well written and astute (as usual). I’ve been enjoying reading the blog and love that you revisit some of the old topics from time to time (or at least one’s that we have discussed).

    Thank you.

    Andrea

  2. Lynn says:

    I am a SMALL business with BIG goals :) I LOVE your blog :) I have purchased your book and I am reading it when I get a chance. It’s GREAT. I TOTALLY agree with the points you made. Fitting the PLUS SIZE customer is DIFFICULT. I do alterations and SOME custom sewing. My plus-sizers are ALL different as far as their PLUS areas….. I live in Southeastern Ohio. This area is VERY economically depressed. Many customers CALL me (I am in the yellow pages) but they want me to sew for them at $2-$5 an hour…NADA…I can earn more than that flipping burgers at McD’s…… The designer types you mentioned would FAIL HERE….Style and fit and quality are UNIMPORTANT………….PRICE TALKS……………

  3. Heather says:

    Great post! The best of left AND right. Profit is always the key; otherwise why be in business? It’s a concept I’ve known for years, but sadly, many people seem to assume that the profit motive is pure greed. I applaud your efforts to revive sewn manufacturing in the US. Hard road! but reasonably well paying jobs here in the US are the only way we’ll get out of this hole. Kudos!

  4. Julian Hill says:

    Kathleen,

    Well-written. I agree with every word of it. Thanks for having the guts to say it. I think it provided a good reality check too. I went down your list and thought about each of the 3 types and if they were the /primary/ motivator. Fortunately, none of them were.

    Call me crazy but identity is developed through character, one’s course is formed by action; it’s not something you wash and wear.

    That’s a very existentialist view. I totally agree and am glad that someone in the “industry” said it. I laugh sometimes at this kids that shop at Hot Topic and are being “unique individuals” and “non-conforming” by looking exactly like the rest of their peers.

    –Julian

  5. Barb Taylorr says:

    I also strongly agree with your observations here. You are probably helping more aspiring entrepreneurs than you are offending with these comments. So keep up the good work. Have you noticed that the “fit saints” are usually focusing on their own unique body types without any regard to how to reach that very small pool of consumers? Talk about setting yourself up to fail!

    I find that I must play devil’s advocate here though, on some of the comments about identity. Let’s not kid ourselves here. A huge aspect of the fashion industry is designing something so cool that lots of people want to wear it, and then they also want to come back to you to give them new stuff with that same sort of feel. Additionally, a customer without a lot of confidence about their own sense of style & ability to put an outfit together, looks to their favorite brands (or their friends’ favorite brands) to help them feel comfortable that they are not making bad fashion choices. If you were not born with a strong sense of aesthetics you may very well want help developing a visual identity. These are the people paying our bills, I embrace them and pride myself that I can help their self esteem by working in this industry. After all, if a person really wanted to be 100% unique they’d be making their own clothes and we would all need to find new careers.

  6. Bente says:

    Very good post; interesting and thoughtful. I agree with your perspectives Kathleen.
    Lynn; I don’t agree about this: “Style and fit and quality are UNIMPORTANT………….PRICE TALKS……………”.
    There are a range of elements to reach success: look/design, quality, touch, fit, and price. You arrange this in the way that fits your product line and your vision. Price doesn’t always come first.
    First of all you have to find your target/clients, and then you know how you should go forward.

    Reg. Identity: It’s an interesting discussion. I agree with Barb (and Kathleen)..
    People can find their way to dress through your line, but they have already their identity…that’s why they chose your stuff. You can help them out (LOL), but you don’t create their identity.
    Take teenagers for example;. They are in search for their identity and they tend to identify with groups to be accepted. That’s why this age group is easy too hook with large publicity campaign. They get a life style served on a plate. Few of them want to be different.

  7. Patricia Ann says:

    Oh, I can SO relate to your comments re the Socially Responsible.

    I have a neighbor whose daughter recently completed an UNPAID summer internship with a major worldwide-socially-conscious designer who has been touted in mainstream media for their *worthy causes*. The young woman would wake at 5:30 AM to take the train into NYC and come home after 9:00 PM. Her only compensation was a picnic in the Hamptons and a $1000 clothing certificate, oh yes, and the status of stating who she worked for on her resume. I’m not one to step on anyone’s dreams, but I know for a fact most fashion career job fairs DO NOT consider unpaid internships as experience, no matter how famous the designer. And the bank won’t care either when applying for a loan, they want to see your bank account.

    My advice to her mother was to tell her take the certificate, buy the best of the collection and then sell the pieces on eBay so she could come out ahead.

    As for the designer, it would be more noble of them to put their money where their mouth is. Isn’t paying a decent salary for services rendered a MORAL obligation? Or, does this only apply to Third World tribeswomen, which garners more media attention.

  8. Nate says:

    It’s always refreshing when I hear someone with common sense describe profiteering in a positive light and as a driving force behind success.

    I’m tired of hearing that profit is an inherently “evil” aspect of business and society – it pays everyone’s bills (except those that feed off of government systems). Strange how those that complain the most, take the most.

  9. Jasonda says:

    You forgot one reason… “My idea is so original, I can’t believe nobody thought of it, I’ll make a ton of money – so how can I not do it?!” i.e. – starting a line for a product that fills a need that you’ve just discovered, thinking you’re the first to realize it, and then jumping in without doing some serious research. Serious research does not mean checking the Wal-Mart shelves or the first page of Google results! :)

  10. Darby says:

    Ok, I have to admit it. My launch definitely fell under the “fit saint” category, not in plus sizes though, kinda the opposite. Excellent post. And, btw, I AM out of business.

  11. Jasmin Wilkins says:

    Kathleen,

    As usual, you are bang on the nail, and I absolutely agree with you. It boils down in some ways to listening, not talking (do ANY customers want what you are “offering”, or did you mistake your own desire for a market?)

    I have faith in someone with clear goals. I don’t trust someone whose primary goal is basically making people do something because it is ‘good’. People aren’t motivated by what other people think ‘good’ is, they are motivated by what they consider valuable. This is often two totally different things. Plus, views of ‘good’ are as wide and varied as humans, and pretty often conflict.

    I live in a country devoted for many years to ‘social welfare’ and ‘good social outcomes’ – New Zealand, and I’ve now reached the point of view that actually, people need to face the realities of life with some support when necessary, but not a primary focus on ‘support’, because people will rely on it if it is continuously available, rather than striving to be self supporting. Our government now pays benefits to enormous chunks of the population to support families, the aged, the invalid, and the unemployed. The problem is, it turns people into beneficiaries and dependents, rather than fostering independence. It also increases the power and control of the employer/giver which shouldn’t be ignored … this is also a ‘need’ being met, albeit unhealthily!

    If you wear a girdle (or support underwear), do you bother to flex your muscle? Of course not, you don’t need to! A responsible society/employer/person does not seek to disempower people by ‘supporting’ them to a degree that renders them weak, dependent, and unable to be self supporting. Rather, a responsible organisation focuses on clear expectations and communication, and holding people accountable for their actions.

    A responsible employer is an adult, employing adults, who need to contribute to acheiving the company goal of selling a reasonable product people want to buy, of appropriate quality, at a profit, and keep all the negatives for the company (and environment) to a minimum, like waste. There is nothing wrong with that!

    Long live common sense, and may it actually become common! And good on you Kathleen, for helping promote it :-)

  12. Sahara says:

    Wow Kathleen, you have said what I think! In NYC there are WAAAAYYYY too many style saints (closet fashion police), who wind up primarily being bought by their friends and the folks who think their friends are cool. It’s mind boggling how many boutiques here, once raising the real-estate value of whole downtown neighborhoods, are closed, rent owed to the same landlords.

    Folks are walking around in shock and awe over their debt (look at Yohji Yamamoto), but, out of the ashes are some who are starting to turn to the model of making a good garment at a good price, and using their profit to uplift their employees and business, instead of buying 3 new pairs of Christian Louboutins.

  13. Hi Kathleen! Great post. For the most part, I agree. I will share something slightly different from my own experience, however. As a women’s running apparel company we’ve attended a lot of marathon expos – where we have a booth and sell product directly to runners. Nothing gets the ladies into the booth faster than when I say we started the company to get away from poofy running shorts. The second I say it, they know what I mean, and want to learn more. Perhaps this makes me a fit saint, but it also appears to motivate a lot of our customers. I would also venture to say that fit may be a more critical issue in athletic apparel – where an ill-fitting garment can more than irritating, but downright painful.

  14. Polaire says:

    I agree with the three statements, but about fitting I have to add:

    A lot of people, including “normal-sized” people, have no idea what correct fit is anymore. I’ve actually had to look it up on the web. I’m a Petite and over the years I’ve grown so used to things not fitting that I don’t notice anymore. If I paid attention, I’d go crazy with compulsiveness and be unable to step outside the door because NOTHING EVER FITS. Shoulders are always too big; waists and sleeves usually too long; the pants that fit my hips make my waist swim, I have to wear Size 5 and even Size 6 shoes when my correct size is 4.5. It goes on and on.

    Almost twenty years ago, I paid to have a couple suits altered, but it was $100 for each on top of the cost of the suits, which were bridge designer, and probably cost $400 each. I understood then that the place had done a beautiful job, but now that I’ve taken some sewing classes, I appreciate the work even more.

    When people complain about how hard it is to find things that fit, I try to explain that apart from some companies’ propensity to treat all women like anorexic 14-year-olds (that IS insulting) the diversity of bodies in America and the increasingly large size of some people makes it genuinely difficult for manufacturers to fit everyone.

    But since they tend to know all about the superficial aspects of “fashion” from the media and next to nothing about the details of construction and fit, the message never takes.

  15. Polaire says:

    Another issue, and I hope I don’t get crucified here, is that some women are so much in denial that they think that merely by having something graded up they’ll look good, when certain styles look best only in a relatively limited range of sizes.

    To be clear:

    I am not saying that women should be required to starve themselves to anorectic nubs. To be healthy and reasonably trim ought to be enough.

    I also am not saying that women much larger than normal are not entitled to be able to buy nice clothes.

    But I do understand why certain high-end designers are reluctant to enter the plus size field for both aesthetic and economic reasons.

  16. K LInder says:

    a few comments

    * – bad fitting clothing is everywhere and it is horrible. The fact is that “off the rack” gets worse every year in quality of sewing and quality of fit. Of course if you were paid slave wages to work 7 days a week 16 hours a day, you would not be at your best either.

    The fact is that the slow slide into poor quality has been going on for so long that most people have no idea what it is like to wear clothing that fits…not even one tailored suit or even a properly fitting pair of jeans. Good clothing is simply cut and pieced differently than low quality crap. When a good fit calls for a curved cut (which costs money in fabric waste) the cost is passed on to the consumer; but far too many of the consumers simply do not want to pay that extra money – even when it makes a garment last many years longer. When you cut your pieces to create a body designed to fit a curved body (not a flat cardboard body) it costs more money. Every time a straight cut design is used it saves money at the cost of quality, which can translate into a lot pf money over the course of a years sales. The majority of clothing is now made in lower quality shops that specialize in low cost items sold at a high volume. They make their money by selling in quantity, not quality.

    * – A person who goes into a given business ONLY because they find it fun, is usually going to fail. Hobbies are hobbies, and there is nothing wrong with them (even making a few bucks on them) but they are still hobbies. Although business can be rewarding and fun, it can also be very hard and frustrating. It is risky and stressful.

    * – All businesses need to make money or they die and getting any business to succeed requires knowledge, skills, and a lot of stubbornness and patience. You have to be hungry for sucess and willing to learn (and take instruction).

    Success also requires giving customers something they want to have … but it is perfectly possoible for you to convince them that you have a good idea (sometimes even if you do not).This is the the most important piece of a successful business – MARKETING.

    Bill Gates insisted that Microsoft was not a software or I.T. company, but a marketing company. He was right. His success did not come from having a quality product, or a good ethical reputation, or a social conscience (he had none of these). It came down to getting people to WANT the product his company made by emotional manipulation (this is called marketing) and to think of his company first (by getting and keeping market share). The fact is that advertising works. It sells product. It gets people to part with their money and give it to you. I have seen a lot of businesses built on great ideas die, becasue nobody knew they were there.

    The success of your marketing methods = the success of your company.

  17. Kathleen says:

    So…what you seem to be saying (circuitously) is that making crappy fitting clothes doesn’t matter because the success of your company depends on the strength of your marketing methods. :)

    Of course if you were paid slave wages to work 7 days a week 16 hours a day, you would not be at your best either.

    I don’t think this is entirely true in several respects. First, it’s a throw away line oft repeated but don’t think it’s actually true (long story). Wages may be low compared to western standards but it’s well paying there. Second, producers are responsible for quality and what they’re willing to pay for. You can get good stuff and well made but a lot of entrepreneurs don’t want to pay for it.

  18. Mei says:

    “You should be as profit minded as your employees; they’re not coming to work because the clothes are cool. They’re coming for the cash.” WELL WRITTEN

  19. Kathleen says:

    Harvard Business School did a study showing “disparity between what shoppers say and what they do debunks the myth of the ethical consumer”.

    Many surveys purport to show that even the average consumer is demanding so-called ethical products, such as fair trade–certified coffee and chocolate, fair labor–certified garments, cosmetics produced without animal testing, and products made through the use of sustainable technologies. Yet when companies offer such products, they are invariably met with indifference by all but a selected group of consumers… Although many individuals bring their values and beliefs into purchasing decisions, when we examined actual consumer behavior, we found that the percentage of shopping choices made on a truly ethical basis proved far smaller than most observers believe, and far smaller than is suggested by the anecdotal data presented by advocacy groups.

    More is here.

  20. Sabine says:

    After some time of being self employed, I have come to the realization, if you are not in it to make money, then you are better off becoming a volunteer, at least that won’t cost you as much and people will no begrudge you the price of the products…..

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